Introduction to the Kazakh Language

Located in Central Asia, there is a mineral-rich country called Kazakhstan that is also the ninth largest country in the world by the size. Along with the Russian language, the Kazakh language also functions as one of the country’s official languages.

The Kazakh language is genetically a northeastern Turkic language. The Kazakh is most similar to Kyrygyz and Tatar (spoken in Russia) and is influenced heavily by both Mongolian and Tatar. Kazakh also shares a lot of words and grammatical structure with Turkish because it developed from Chagatai, a language used in the Eastern Turkish world.

There are 44 Turkic languages, 39 of them still living and 6 of them severely endangered. Turkish is by far the most popular and well-known Turkic language. Many other Turkic languages are easy to pick up once you know Turkish. However, compared with Uzbek, Kazakh is much more difficult to understand or pick up for a Turkish speaker.

The Role of Kazakh in Society

Kazakhstan is the largest landlocked country in the world, bordering Russia, China, Uzbekistan, and the Caspian Sea. It has some coastline along the Caspian Sea, but no ocean access.

Kazakhstan has a population of 18 million, 17 million of which are native speakers of Kazakh. Ethnic Kazakhs also live in neighboring countries, such as China, Uzbekistan, Russia, Mongolia, and Kyrgyzstan, and there is a diaspora residing in the United States, Canada, and Europe.

There are four major dialects: South, East, and Northwest, while the fourth dialect can be found in China’s Xinjiang province. The Northwest dialect is considered standard.

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Kazakh is very similar to its neighboring Kyrgyz and slightly less similar with Uzbek. Though Kazakh and Uzbek share many similarities, knowing one of them does not guarantee fluency in the other. This is the reason why Central Asians choose to speak Russian with each other. The Russian language is a necessity for anyone hoping for financial or academic success in the region, just as English is in other areas of the world.

Kazakhstan was ruled by Russia under the Tsars and the Soviets, so Russian loanwords came into the language during that period.

Switching Alphabets

As with its neighboring country Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan has also experienced alphabet changes, not once but twice.

Kazakh was first written in the Arab script in the 1860s. Then the Bolsheviks introduced the Latin script in 1929 only to switch to modified Cyrillic in 1940 under Stalin's rule. The Cyrillic form of Kazakh is still in widespread use today.

Discussions began in 1992 to return the language to a Latin script. The enormous costs involved proved it too burdensome at the time. Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev announced in October 2017 that Kazakh will finally return to Latin script over a gradual transition period. This is aimed as part of a modernization and development effort. It is also viewed to promote nationalism and as an attempt to distance the language from Russian.

Source: BBC The Cost of Changing an Entire Country's Alphabet

The current modified Cyrillic script has 42 letters and the Latin script simplifies it to 32 letters by making use of apostrophes for certain sounds. For example, “Qazaqstan Respy’bli’kasy” is “the Republic of Kazakhstan” in the Latin script. Some words may end up with many apostrophes, such as “s’i’i’e” (cherry).

The announcement of this spelling system received critical backlash, viewing it as both ugly and not useful. The president then approved a new version of the Latin script on February 20, 2018. The new version replaced apostrophes with diacritics.

This system was also adopted by neighboring country, Turkmenistan.  The Turkic-speaking former Soviet countries, like Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan, have all abandoned the Cyrillic script for the Latin script in the years shortly following the Soviet collapse.

Source: BBC The Cost of Changing an Entire Country's Alphabet, by Dene-Hern Chen

The Structure of the Kazakh Language

Kazakh, like other Turkic languages, is agglutinative, meaning that suffixes are added to a word instead of using prepositions or modal verbs. This can sometimes result in rather long nouns and verbs depending on the concepts being conveyed. Kazakh is an SOV language, meaning that the verb comes after the object, as in Latin.

Let's Learn Some Kazakh Phrases

Below, you'll find a list of essential phrases that you can start learning and speaking right away. These basic sentences will give you a solid foundation for participating in simple conversations.

If you already know another Turkic language, the Kazakh phrases below should appear easy to pick up. Otherwise, if you only know European languages, then Turkic languages like Kazakh will take time to get used to since vocabulary and grammar is completely different.

English
Kazakh
Welcome! Қош келдіңіз! (Qoş, keldiñiz!)
Hello! Сәлем! (Sälem!)
How are you? Қалыңыз қалай? (Qalıñız qalay?)
Reply to 'How are you?' Қалым жақсы (Qalım jaqsı)
Long time no see. Көрмегелі қанша болды? (Körmegeli qanşa boldı?)
What's your name? Сіздің атыңыз кім? (Sizdiñ atıñız kim?)
My name is ... Менің атым ... (Meniñ atım ...)
Where are you from? Қай жердікісіз? (Qay jerdikisiz?)
I'm from... Мен... (Men...)
Pleased to meet you! Танысқанымызға қуаныштымын! (Tanısqanımızğa qwanıştımın!)
Good morning! Қайырлы таң! (Qayırlı tañ!)
Good afternoon! Қайырлы күн! (Qayırlı kün!)
Good evening! Қайырлы кеш! (Qayrli kesh!)
Good night! Қайырлы түн! (Qayırlı tün!)
Goodbye Сау болыңыз! (Saw bolıñız!)
I don't understand. Мен түсінбеймін (Men tüsinbeymin)
Do you speak Kazakh? Қазақша сөйлейсіз бе? (Qazaqşa söylejsiz be?)
Excuse me/ Sorry! Кешіріңіз! (Keşiriñiz!)
Thank you! Рахмет! (Raxmet!)
Reply to 'thank you'. Оқасы жоқ! (Oqası joq!)

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